The Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa last week was a rare opportunity for high-level representatives from governments, civil society and the private sector to reflect on and debate the future architecture of development financing. The timing of the conference was particularly important, coming just months before the next UN General Assembly, when member nations are expected to endorse an ambitious new package of sustainable development goals to be achieved by 2030.

Prior to the conference, the FAO together with the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) estimated the cost of eradicating hunger at approximately $267 billion of additional resources each year until 2030.

The bigger cost

Despite the seemingly high cost, the reality is that the cost of inaction is far higher — some estimates put the annual cost of malnutrition to the global economy at several trillion dollars. Global annual military expenditure is an estimated $1.8 trillion, while within the OECD almost $260 billion is spent every year on agricultural support in member countries. Put another way, $267 billion corresponds to just 0.3 per cent of world economic output. Is this really too high a price to pay to help almost 800 million hungry people?

Sustainably eradicating hunger through pro-poor investment, particularly in agriculture and in rural areas, makes good economic sense. Various studies have demonstrated that there is no other sector in which the returns on investment in terms of poverty alleviation and employment are more effective.

Over 70 per cent of the poor live in rural areas and derive their livelihoods from agriculture, livestock, forestry or fisheries. A significant proportion of the poor are under- or unemployed youth, particularly in developing countries. Simply closing the gender gap in agriculture would reduce the number of hungry people by 12 to 17 per cent.

Ensuring women have better access to land, inputs and training would mean that between 100 and 140 million people are no longer hungry. $47 billion should be allocated to the financing of social protection programmes, that is, transfer of money to those who live on less than $1.25 a day (poverty line defined by the UN). Simultaneously, investing $80 billion to the poorest will enable them to generate their own income and become independent. The majority of funding must be directed to rural areas.

Achievable goals

We believe that eradicating hunger is possible. Food systems and agriculture can be a source of wealth and well-being for all, especially the poorest. And this can be achieved during our lifetime. We can be the “Zero Hunger generation”.

Eradicating hunger requires that we build on successful local and international experiences. The starting point is breaking the cycle of poverty, hunger and low productivity in agriculture. The road ahead demands prudent investment in social protection to ensure the poor can access sufficient, nutritious food to facilitate the eradication of hunger even before 2030. At the same time, investment in agriculture and rural development is critical to ensure the eradication of hunger is sustainable.

With an additional annual investment of $116 billion in social protection plus $151 billion in productive investments ($105 billion of which should be in agriculture and rural areas), the world will be sustainably free of hunger. This translates to an annual investment of approximately $160 per hungry person — the cost of a mobile phone or a sheep. The wealthier part of the world can easily afford this.

As the old adage goes, “A hungry man is an angry man”. Eradicating hunger is not only cost-effective, it is also a vital investment in peace, security and sustainable development. A failure to make these additional investments will ultimately result in much higher costs for the global economy.

Zero hunger in the world is a global public good. And this is what the participants at the Addis Ababa conference wish to communicate. Let history remember us as the “Zero Hunger generation”.

The writer is the assistant director-general at FAO for international technical cooperation